Long Read | Life-saving football in Rwanda genocide

Eric Eugène Murangwa was almost killed during the Rwandan genocide. His status as a Rayon Sports goalkeeper saved him, which is why he now uses football as a vehicle for reconciliation.

Eric Eugène Murangwa’s mind went blank when he felt the barrel of an AK-47 assault rifle press into his back. Lying face down in his home in Kigali, Rwanda, the cerebral part of his brain tuned out. It wasn’t the first time a soldier had threatened to kill him, and over the next 100 days now known as the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, it wouldn’t be the last.

In that moment, the 19-year-old affectionately known as “Toto”, meaning “Young One” in Swahili, did not think of his family. He did not think of his housemate who was experiencing a similar trauma just a metre away. He did not think of his beloved Rayon Sports FC, the most popular football club in Rwanda where he played goalkeeper. His thoughts dissolved as he waited for a gunshot.

“My mind was empty,” he tells New Frame 26 years later on the south bank of the River Thames in London where he now lives. “The mind completely freezes. In those moments you are not able to function as normal. You lose your humanity. I wasn’t scared even though I accepted that I was going to die. I was aware of what was happening but I wouldn’t call it consciousness. It’s automatic and hollow. It feels like nothing.”

Related article:

Chaos erupted around him as the three Interahamwe militia ransacked his house under the pretence of searching for hidden weapons. As if guided by divinity, a photo album bearing images of Murangwa in Rayon Sports colours landed face up. 

The soldier holding the gun demanded an explanation. “Don’t lie to me or I’ll shoot you right now! I am Rayon’s biggest fan. I know every player on the team so you better not tell me any lies.”

Through the haze Murangwa saw a reprieve. “It’s me,” he said. “If you know the club, then you’ll know it’s me.”

A switch was flicked. All the menace and anger and hatred that had gnarled this man’s face and had transformed him into a killer evaporated. Now he was smiling as he helped Murangwa to his feet. He sat him down on the nearby sofa. The soldier instructed his comrades to leave the room so he could talk about the beautiful game with one of his heroes.

“It was incredible,” Murangwa said, still incredulous after all these years. “I couldn’t believe it. I had accepted death and now this soldier had been replaced with a fan. We spoke about famous victories and some spectacular saves I had made. He left us unharmed and even provided advice on how to avoid trouble in the future. Without question, football saved my life.”

Rwanda’s great divide  

Had Murangwa’s story ended there, it would still be worth telling. Born in the east of the country in a town called Rwamagana, he had been a fan of Rayon Sports all his life. The club was founded in Nyanza in the south, the traditional seat of the Rwandan monarchy, and had roots deep in the country’s past, drawing support across geographical and social borders.

“It is something that has connected all Rwandans,” Murangwa said. “It didn’t matter where you came from or which so-called ethnicity you belonged to. It’s always been special.”

After independence in 1962, the centre of power shifted to Kigali. Eventually, both Rayon Sports and Rwandan citizens, Murangwa’s family among them, shifted too.

His home was located near the club’s training ground and he would spend most days in awe behind the posts. Studying the goalkeeper’s every move, he would only break concentration to retrieve errant balls. One day in 1989, when a reserve keeper had failed to show up, Murangwa, 16 at the time, was asked to fill in because of his height. He was a natural. A few months later he made his first team debut and began living his dream.

But seismic events were starting to move the ground beneath his feet. Before German and Belgian colonisers had muddied the waters in the mid-19th century, Rwandans were loosely divided into two main social strata. The Tutsi owned land and cattle and formed the elite class while the majority Hutu farmed the land. This arbitrary separation became entrenched by the European overlords who favoured Tutsi rule. 

Related article:

Now, under the despotic governance of Juvénal Habyarimana, and fuelled by the incendiary anti-Tutsi Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, the divide was volatile. In October 1990, exiled Rwandans living in Uganda rallied under the banners of the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and poured across the border in strength, and thus conflict ensued.

All Tutsis were soon painted with the same brush. Even those with no affiliation to the conflict were branded enemies of the state. Harassment in the street became a common occurrence. Political killings barely made the news. Inevitably, football became entangled in the gears of history. 

Rayon Sports’ inclusivity became a stick to beat it with. Antagonists blinded by their loyalty to Habyarimana considered it a Tutsi club, treating its fans and players with disdain. Members of the board were arrested and interrogated. Duplicitous politicians made power grabs. Away trips to teams connected to the regime became uncomfortable affairs.

“Back then, fans were right next to the goals, within touching distance, and I could look them in the eye as they hurled abuse and death threats at me,” Murangwa explained. “It was especially bad when we played clubs linked with the military, such as Panthèras Noires [Black Panthers], or teams in the north, such as Etincelles FC. It was impossible to win there. Referees were intimidated and any protests fell on the deaf ears.”

Football as a unifier, only briefly 

Eventually Murangwa refused to travel north or play against these hostile clubs as a new kind of normal set in. But there was a kindling of hope that the carnage approaching might be averted. 

On 6 March 1994, a month before the genocide began, Rayon Sports hosted Al-Hilal of Sudan in the African Cup Winners’ Cup (which gave birth to the CAF Confederation Cup when it was merged with the CAF Cup in 2004) at the Amahoro National Stadium, filled to its 30 000 capacity. In an inspired performance that still resonates today, Murangwa and his team soared to a 4-1 victory. In the parade that followed, soldiers and politicians and ordinary Rwandans celebrated as one. Even Habyarimana, no doubt envious of Rayon’s galvanising effect, joined the party, inviting the team to a televised reception in their honour.

“He tried to claim our triumph as his own,” Murangwa said. “That bothered me at the time. Football and politics have always been linked in Rwanda but it was sad to see our greatest achievement made dirty by this tyrant. Even so, it was an incredible feeling to see our country united for that fleeting moment.”

Related article:

A month later, on 6 April at around 8pm, Habyarimana was killed when his aeroplane was struck by a surface-to-air missile over the capital. Murangwa wasn’t aware of this. He had just completed his second training session of the day in preparation for an important match in Kenya and had spent the evening at his local pub watching Zambia beat Mali 4-0 in the African Cup of Nations semifinal.

It was around 3am that he awoke to gun fire. A regular sound at the time, but this resonated at a different pitch. “It was intense,” Murangwa recalled. “It felt like a proper battle, not just a street fight. I could tell something was different. My first thought was that there was a coup.”

Later that morning he heard the news. “I went numb,” he said. “I was happy this dictator was dead but I knew who would be blamed. I knew battle lines were being drawn.”

Related article:

A few hours later Murangwa was face down on his carpet. He had received a beating by the strangers who had burst into his home. His mind was blank as he waited for the gunshot when a photo album guided by divinity fell to the floor.

“I believe in fate,” he said. “The album could have opened on a different page. The soldier could have been a fan of a different club. Everything happens for a reason. But more importantly that moment highlighted the power of sport and its ability to influence people. This evil person transformed because of the special relationship he had with me and his love of Rayon. I didn’t feel it at the time, but my desire to use football as a tool for unity and peace was planted then.”

First he had to survive. Murangwa convinced the soldiers that his housemate, Atahanase, also played for Rayon Sports in the reserve team, but there were other lives to save. He begged the soldiers not to kill his neighbours  – a woman and three children – with a hand grenade. They obliged but someone would be killed before this first terrifying episode was over.

Murangwa and Atahanase employed a 16-year-old boy as their housekeeper. He was a Tutsi without an identity card and in the eyes of the soldiers this was enough cause to execute him. After being ushered back into his home, Murangwa heard a single shot. It pains him to admit, but the name of the boy, who had only been employed in the house for a month, eludes him. 

“It doesn’t become easier,” Murangwa said of retelling his story countless times. “But you find a way to manage the memories even though they are difficult to imagine. Sometimes a part of the story leaves me, but it returns. When it does it feels like I’m living that experience again. It’s as if I’d shone a light on something ugly that had been in the shadows for a long time.”

Fearing your countrymen 

Murangwa’s odyssey over the next 100 days reads like a Hollywood script. After spending a stressful evening with his family, devout Seventh-day Adventists who insisted on prayer and song to combat their anxiety, he sought refuge at a teammate’s place, a Hutu.

Longin Munyurangabo, like all Hutus, had been encouraged by vitriolic propaganda to mistrust his Tutsi friends. Murangwa knew he was taking a risk knocking on his door.

“I was concerned every day throughout this experience,” Murangwa said. “Fear of your fellow citizen became so normalised but it was never something that you could absorb. It was like carrying an ever present weight. Every person you met could be the cause of your death. The collective trauma is something we all shared.”

Days melted into weeks as Murangwa lay low. On one occasion his life came close to ruin as Interahamwe soldiers discovered him in hiding and took him away. Only ransom delivered by the desperate pleas of Munyurangabo’s cousin, a soldier of the regime who had defected from the fighting, confirmed his continued survival. When the situation became untenable, Murangwa was on the move again, aided by his status as a Rayon Sports footballer.

Related article:

He moved in with Jean-Marie Vianney Mudahinyuka, also known as Zuzu, an important figure in the club, and a Hutu nationalist who gained prominence in the militia. It was his task to warp the club into a stronghold of the regime. 

“He was an unsavoury character,” Murangwa said. “He would make racist jokes and was known to be connected to some bad people.”

Zuzu is currently serving a life sentence in a Rwandan prison for his crimes during the genocide, including the killing of 62 Tutsis in Rayon Sports’ Nyamirambo Stadium and 600 others in a massacre at a school. Not that Murangwa knew about this then. All he knew was he had to stay alive.

His stay at Zuzu’s place was cut short when it became apparent the tide was turning on the battlefield. The RPF was gaining the upper hand against troops still loyal to the regime. When his host scarpered out of fear for his own life, he dropped Murangwa off at a hub set up by the International Red Cross. 

Finding refuge in Hotel Rwanda 

Murangwa pretended to be a Unicef staff member and was allowed entry. From there he was taken to the Hôtel des Milles Collines, the safe haven made famous by the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda

“When I arrived I found quite a number of friends there,” Murangwa said. “It was the most safe I felt for a long time but I knew catastrophe could strike at any moment. We had a couple of UN peacekeepers and there was a tank by the entrance of the hotel, but this was more for show. If the regime wanted us dead, they could have easily attacked.”

Around 1 200 people huddled in the hotel became important bargaining chips in the peace negotiations. Both the regime and the RPF wanted an end to the fighting and a prisoner exchange was brokered by the UN. About a month after arriving at the hotel, Murangwa boarded a truck, was transported to RPF-controlled territory, crossed a dusty road as regime soldiers walked the other way, and was overwhelmed with emotion.

“It was the most incredible feeling,” he said. “The simple act of standing in open space was incredible. In that moment I knew the regime would fall and that its soldiers would lose the war.”

When it was all over, an uncountable number of people had lost their lives. The original figure had the death toll at 800 000. New graves and remains are discovered every year. Murangwa believes the number of dead is well over one million and could be as high as 1.6 million. 

Murwangwa’s parents and siblings survived but his uncle did not. Nor did Longin Munyurangabo who was shot dead trying to protect his Tutsi girlfriend at a roadblock. Not one person who woke up to a new country with a new flag and a new identity was untouched by one of the greatest atrocities committed in the 20th century. 

Related article:

The war officially ended on 4 July 1994 when Kigali fell into RPF hands. Paul Kagame, assumed control and is still in power today. Slowly, Rwandans found themselves returning to their old lives.

“Putting my keeper gloves on again and getting back to training was one of the greatest days of life,” Murangwa said, who would make his senior international debut later that year. “It was the most powerful feeling standing in the national stadium, wearing my country’s flag on my chest. I thought of the people who were no longer with us. I had an immense feeling of responsibility in that moment. I felt so privileged to be there and realised I had an opportunity to play a role that was beyond just me standing between those sticks.”

Scarier than during the genocide 

Murangwa pauses as tears well in his eyes, but he does not cry. His look becomes distant as he fights back the flood of memories and pain. For a moment he is unable to speak though his previous message rings louder now in the silence. The ghosts of his past will forever haunt him. Just as they do for all those who live through such bewildering horror. But the ghosts are a blessing. They are reminders of a life lived, of demons overcome.

The worst was over, but danger still loomed by the time Murangwa had rediscovered his routine and felt connected with the process of rebuilding a nation. In 1995 a group of Interahamwe militia were arrested trying to infiltrate the country from a refugee camp in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo. One of them was involved in Murangwa’s kidnapping while he was in hiding with Longin.

“This insurgency was a hit job with a specific list of people,” Murangwa said. “After interrogation it was discovered that I was on the list. The soldiers who captured him asked me to come and meet him.”

Murangwa was mortified when he did so. He had no idea who he was. It suddenly dawned on him that the fame and recognition that football provided, that helped him survive the genocide, was now thrusting him between cross-hairs. If he didn’t know what his assassin looked like, how could he live a normal life?

Related article:

“I was more scared after that than I ever was during the genocide,” he said. “I was insecure and always looked over my shoulder.”

In June 1996, a World Cup qualifier in Tunisia saw the Rwandan national team spend a night in Paris on their way back home. There he met with an ex-girlfriend who had been granted asylum after escaping an arranged marriage. She convinced Murangwa to begin a new life. Within hours a plan was hatched, his bags were packed and he was on his way to Antwerp in Belgium. “It was the hardest decision of my life,” he said. “There was no right answer at the time.”

Using sport to promote reconciliation 

The scandal rocked Rwanda. Alongside Murangwa, four other teammates had disappeared in the night. They were labelled sell-outs and traitors. Stories began to circulate that these dissenters were discrediting the new government on foreign radio stations. 

After nine months away, Murangwa wanted to clear his name. He returned to Rwanda with a cohort of foreign-based footballers and refugees on a peacekeeping mission. Friendly games were arranged and he began to build his legacy.

He settled in London and though his playing days were numbered, his impact on football gathered pace. In 2009 he established, Football for Hope, Unity and Peace, an organisation that uses the sport to promote reconciliation and healing both in Rwanda and across the world.

Several other foundations, such as Survivors Tribune and the Ishami Foundation, extend his message beyond the confines of football and use his own narrative as a beacon. In 2018 he was awarded an MBE (Member Of The Most Excellent Order Of The British Empire) by Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace.

15 March 2018: Eric Eugène Murangwa with the MBE medal he received from the Prince of Wales after an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace in London, England. (Photograph by Dominic Lipinski-WPA Pool/ Getty Images)
15 March 2018: Eric Eugène Murangwa with the MBE medal he received from the Prince of Wales after an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace in London, England. (Photograph by Dominic Lipinski-WPA Pool/ Getty Images)

His work is not done. Racist chants grow louder in terraces across Europe. Dictators continue to use football as a seductive tool for their own gain. Toxic masculinity still pervades the sport as governing bodies resist equal pay. 

“I owe everything to football,” Murangwa said. “Everything I am, everything that has happened to me is because of football. It has not only saved me but given me a platform to educate people on the dangers of division. I saw the worst of humanity during the genocide but I also saw moments of great heroism and love. That is what football does for people. It is a light in the darkness.”

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.